Reading the front page of today’s Chongqing Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece of the western municipality, one could be forgiven for thinking all is well. The headline at the bottom of the page reads: “Peaceful Chongqing: A Happy Home Enjoyed By All the People of Chongqing.”
But there are signs of political tension behind the scenes in Chongqing, a vibrant inland city run by one of China’s most charismatic Party leaders, Bo Xilai (薄熙来), a prominent “princeling” who has been tipped for a possible ascent to China’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee in a tensely anticipated Party leadership transition later this year.
[ABOVE: Today's front-page at the official Chongqing Daily, the mouthpiece of Chongqing's top leadership. Click here for PDF: Chongqing Daily 2.9.2012 Page 1]
International media reported yesterday that Wang Lijun (王立军), the tenacious top police official credited with spearheading Bo Xilai’s crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing, met with U.S. State Department representatives in the consulate in Chengdu.
For much of the day yesterday, rumors flew on Twitter and domestic Chinese microblogs as Chongqing issued a curious notice saying that Wang Lijun had been placed on stress leave, or “vacation-style treatment” (休假式治疗), after suffering a long and physically taxing period of work-related pressure. A separate rumor that Chinese police had surrounded the U.S. Consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu fueled speculation that Wang had approached U.S. officials, possibly seeking asylum.
A report from the AP late yesterday quoted U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirming that Wang had requested and had a meeting at the consulate in Chengdu, and then had departed “of his own volition.” China has remained tight-lipped on the situation, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman saying the ministry had no information. [The New York Times has now posted its own summary of the story.]
So much is still not known about this story, but confirmation of the Chengdu meeting suggests a dramatic turn in Wang’s own saga. On February 2, the Information Office of the Chongqing Municipal Government announced through its official account on Sina Weibo that: “In recent days the municipal Party committee has decided that Comrade Wang Lijun will not continue to hold concurrent posts as head of the city’s public security bureau and secretary of the Party committee, and will in the capacity of deputy mayor be charged with work in the economic sector.”
On February 7, a number of Chinese media, including Guangzhou Daily and the Oriental Morning Post, ran stories about Wang’s shift to new responsibilities, even overseeing education and culture-related work. He was quoted as remarking on visit to Chongqing Normal University on February 5 that “all work projects are new challenges.” But there was still speculation that Wang had been shuffled aside, and perhaps had had a falling out with Bo Xilai.
Chinese media today are reporting nothing.
A keyword search for “Wang Lijun” through the WiseNews database of Chinese newspapers returns just seven articles today, all reports sticking to yesterday’s notice from the Information Office of the Chongqing Municipal Government (via Weibo) saying that Wang was on voluntary stress leave.
But there is still a great deal of activity on Sina Weibo today. Chinese users are actively sharing foreign news, from the AP and others, confirming Wang Lijun’s meeting with U.S. officials. And users are actively pulling out old news coverage and video that helps to put the story in context.
The irony — and perhaps significance — of today’s front page at Chongqing Daily has certainly not escaped Chinese media and Chinese social media users. In a post on its official Weibo, Caijing magazine shared an image of the newspaper’s front page and noted that the article on “peaceful Chongqing” was shared through the website of the official Xinhua News Agency.
[Chongqing Daily praises "peaceful Chongqing" on its front page: a new start with chopping away vice] Chongqing Daily ran an article today called “A Peaceful Chongqing: A Happy Home Enjoyed By All the People of Chongqing,” which said that the targeted strike against organized crime and to root out vice had received the full support of superior leaders and various parts of society. Public security chief Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱) said that the strike against organized crime and vice had been “fought well, fought accurately and fought fiercely”. Since the anti-vice campaign began, central Party and more than 700 provincial-level leaders [from across the country] had come to inspect and observe the campaign. (Xinhua Online)
In light of the breaking Wang Lijun story, the front-page article in Chongqing Daily looks like a concerted effort — even possibly a desperate one — to burnish and defend Bo Xilai’s legacy. Chongqing’s fight against crime from 2008 to 2010 is probably the most important feather in Bo Xilai’s cap as he pushes ahead with his bid for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee.
Given Wang Lijun’s status as a crime-busting bigshot, his name nearly synonymous with Chongqing’s anti-vice campaign, questions that encircle Wang are questions that encircle Bo Xilai.
Clearly, despite today’s panegyric on peace, all is not well on Chongqing’s political scene. And that is a reminder again that turbulence now reigns inside the Party as we head closer to this year’s 18th Party Congress.